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Telangana government denies storing any voter data as part of its e-voting pilot project

The state government’s experiments with remote voting had sparked concerns of data abuse among privacy advocates.

The Telangana government clarified that it did not store any voter data when it conducted a trial of an e-voting project that harnesses facial recognition and blockchain to allow users to vote with the help of a smartphone.

During a webinar, while responding to a question by MediaNama, Rama Devi Lanka, the Officer on Special Duty (OSD) in the Emerging Technologies wing of Telangana’s IT department said that the department used voters’ data from Election Commission of India for authentication.

“We have the voters data stored in voters database; we are just taking the voter number and authenticating the voter and, after he or she votes, it is stored on blockchain.”— Rama Devi Lanka, Telangana IT Department

The webinar was focused on the kind of AI projects that are currently underway in Telangana, and saw participation from Telangana’s IT Secretary Jayesh Ranjan as well as officials from the IT industry body Nasscom.

India still does not have proper data protection or privacy legislation in place that regulates the usage of facial recognition. In addition to that, the Pegasus spyware attack drove home the message that smartphones, be it iOS or Android, are not necessarily foolproof when it comes to thwarting cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Keeping in mind that a vote must be anonymous in India, how technologies that are being deployed for the e-voting process cope with cybersecurity threats remains to be seen.

What is Telangana’s e-voting project?

In October 2021, the Telangana government initiated a dry run of a smartphone-based e-voting solution in the Khammam district of Telangana.

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The process involved three-factor authentication of a valid voter, which includes:

  • Name matching with Aadhaar
  • “Liveness detection” of individual
  • Image matching with EPIC Database (with up to 15 to 20-year-old records).

It also leveraged blockchain (Distributed Ledger) technology “which has been used to secure the de-identified and encrypted votes so that they are maintained as immutable record,” a government press release said.

What about security?

According to the press release, the smartphone app —

  • Binds a device ID and phone number to a specific citizen registration process such that only the same device can be used during voting.
  • Entire voting process can be monitored and controlled by an admin using a web portal.
  • Generation/access of results will require a physical security token-based decryption.

Not everyone’s enthusiastic about blockchain voting

In 2020, the Election Commission of India had held a series of webinars to explore the use of blockchain for remote voting. Several lawyers and academics had noted that voter privacy was just as important as the voting process itself.

Nappinai NS, an advocate at the Supreme Court, and founder of Cyber Saathi, had wondered if tech was even needed in elections, where paper trails are considered essential. Nappinai had also termed Telangana’s use of facial recognition at Kompally as “intrusive”.

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Among other subjects, I cover the increasing usage of emerging technologies, especially for surveillance in India

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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